This month I chatted to over 30 female improvisers from all over the UK to celebrate the talent that we have – we also discuss some of the important debates surrounding this topic as well. Today I talk to an improviser that is part of Box of Frogs and Squidheart – Kate Knight
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
Hi! I’m Kate. I’m a writer and performer of both improv and spoken word, based in Birmingham. I’ve got a dog, a mild addiction to Words With Friends, and one pointy ear.
How did you get into improv?
Improv found me, quite by accident. I was minding my own business, watching a stand-up showcase and suddenly at the end this troupe of joyous goons took to the stage. I remember thinking that the show was OK but what I really wanted was to have the kind of fun it looked like they were having. So I went along to a drop-in and got what I was looking for.
What inspired you to start improv?
A well-placed shortform slot (see above). What inspired me to keep coming back was how easily it allowed people to access creativity and play. It was both intensely soothing and extremely stimulating. I got hooked.
What troupes are you are a part of?
Currently, I’m in Box of Frogs, who are a shortform group, and squidheart, which is a two-person show that I do with my friend Suzie. I’ve guested a few times for some other Midlands groups too. I like the way the Midlands scene is growing – it’s great to know that one doesn’t have to travel to London to take part in great improv.
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
Connected, emotion-led, grounded, honest, vulnerable, true, daring, brave, relational. Unless I’m doing shortform, when it’s more a case of bold, silly, joyous, weird.
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
I don’t like naming people because I’ll inevitably have to leave some equally deserving people out. I’m also really conscious of not turning improv into a popularity contest, so I’ll simply say that in general, I find fearlessness inspiring in an improviser. I also really admire people who hold space without being frantic. These are all things I’m working on in my own improv at the moment.
I have read many articles around the debate that it is harder to be a woman in improv – what are your thoughts on this and why?
When I think about the greatest improvisers and improv teachers that I know, I would say that most of them are women. There are plenty of excellent male improvisers too though, of course. I think being a woman has been good training for improv, because of the way we tend to be socialised towards social/group awareness, and placed into roles that require us to listen and bring things together. Those limitations are quite advantageous for improv, even if they have been pretty debilitating for women over history.
On the other hand, we have also historically been socialised to be extremely polite and rule-worshipping, neither of which are useful traits for an improviser. I would also imagine that it’s a different experience being a woman of colour in improv than it is to be a white woman. Having said that, from my own view, being a queer woman in improv doesn’t feel like a particularly distinctive experience, other than queerness generally feeling like a superpower, because, let’s face it, it is.
I love to improvise with anyone who I feel safe with, of whatever gender. However, for me to feel safe I have to feel sure of several things:
a) that you’re not going to bulldoze me in a scene, either with your own ideas or your own preconceived scene dynamics;
b) that you’re someone I can trust in terms of your views. Now this doesn’t mean we have to be politically aligned in order to play together (but seriously, if any vegans want to start an all-vegan group I’m SO GAME). It just means that I have to know you don’t disdain women, or queer people, or vegans, or any of the other minorities that fall outside of the so-called ‘default’. Most people would say, ‘of course I don’t hate women etc., I don’t hate anyone’, but then they’ll still make sexist moves, or jokes that are homophobic or misogynistic at their root. So it’s possible to be unconsciously unsafe to play with. If you haven’t examined your own unconscious bias, I’m probably not going to feel safe with you.
c) I have to know that you’re going to prioritise me over the audience. That’s not gender-related, but it’s the final criteria I have for feeling safe with someone on stage.
There are also issues around women being sidelined, marginalised, talked over and interrupted in scenes. I have a gender timer, which is a fascinating tool to use in any mixed-sex environment. It lets you time how long men speak for and how long women speak for (yes, the binary of this may be problematic, but it often brings back surprising results). When I’m watching an improv group for the first time, one of the things I look out for is how the women interact in terms of how free they are to initiate, to take up space, to drive scenes, to speak without being interrupted, to cast themselves as characters that they want to be.
I’ve watched a lot of shows where women are literally picked up and moved around the stage like human chess pieces. Thankfully, as more and more women become involved in improv, this is improving, and as I say, the best improvisers I know are majority women.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
‘Eat the baby’ – I was doing a scene where I was an evil witch who had kidnapped a baby, but I wouldn’t eat him because I was a nice vegan liberal person. My director intervened and said, ‘we know you wouldn’t eat a baby, but your character is someone who would definitely eat the baby, so eat the damn baby.’ I’ve been (metaphorically) eating babies ever since. This is actually a vitally important point – no one wants to see ‘vanilla’ normal reactions all the time in an improv show – they can get that anywhere.
It’s great to bring all of your true self on stage, but if that’s all you do than you’re missing out on the joy of playing awful people, different people, people that might bring something extra to your scenes. Have fun being a villain now and again! (on stage)
‘If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole’ – this is so emphatically NOT true in life, but I do believe that, in improv, 9 times out of 10 it is very much the case. You have the power to play whatever game amuses you, as long as you’re not harming your scene partner or anyone else. Take that power back – because if you’re not having fun, literally why are you doing improv? As Mick Napier said to us in class, ‘this is the least important thing you’ll ever do’. So have fun.
Do you find that being a female in an improv show that the suggestions you can get are traditional and stereotypical? How do you feel when you get given these?
I find that suggestions are often given in order to get a laugh, which is why I’ve had to enact having haemorrhoids on stage more times than I can count. I’ve also been given scenes in brothels, and other places. I had good fun in my last brothel scene on stage, where I was a female plumber who’d come to fix the radiator.
Audiences tend to give suggestions based on perceived gender, so it’s common for me to get ‘sister’ or ‘mother’ as an endowment. I’m fine with this – in fact, I sometimes have fun trying to be more stereotypically ‘girly’ as it’s not my natural territory.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
Lots of scenes that I’ve done as part of squidheart, the twoprov show that I do with Suzie Evans. There was this scene with a dinner lady and a sweetly delusional school child, but you really did have to be there….
What have been some of the worst and why?
I’ve been in quite a few scenes that feel like swimming in concrete because no-one knows or cares about what’s happening/each other. Sometimes shows can feel ‘tinny’ and this is because the players aren’t really listening to each other, because they’re too worried about what the audience is thinking.
The worst for me are when audience members walk out. I had a gig the other week that went badly, partly because I thought I could see people walking out during the show. It turned out they were latecomers walking in, but my stage brain didn’t read it that way and the damage was done. Once you’re in the headspace of ‘they don’t like what I’m doing’ it can be hard to tune into what really matters, which is the connection to your partner.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Enjoy the euphoria of the beginning stage, where you feel like you’re amazing at improv because you’ve done a couple of classes and before you realise it’s actually quite hard. Implicit in this advice: don’t be surprised when you suddenly feel shit because you feel like improv has inexplicably become quite hard. Oh, and go to Chicago at some point if you can. If you can’t do Chicago, at least try to go to a UK improv retreat, such as the ones run by the Maydays or the British Improv Project. These are great for your improv as well as feeling part of a community.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
The things I mentioned above (fearlessness, holding space calmly), but also connection generally. I came across a great piece of advice from one of my heroes in the non-improv world: ‘shock them [the audience] into focus with your clarity of intent’. So I’m really trying to make that a habit at the moment too.
What is the future of improv?
No doubt it’ll involve teaching computers to improvise. Or VR-based improvisation where you connect with a partner somewhere around the world and create your own 3D worlds together, with a VR audience if you want one. I look forward to attending the first virtual improv show.